JUST WEEKS ago, my daughter’s mother moved out of state. The kid’s been having a tough time with it, and with school, and with her upcoming tenth birthday, which won’t work out the way she hoped. And then, over the weekend, her laptop and mine both broke—hers by cat-and-ginger-ale misfortune, mine by gravity abetted by my stupidity.
To lighten the mood, this morning broke grey, pounding rain. We pulled on our hoodies, scooped up our bodega umbrellas, and shrugged on our backpacks—hers heavy with school books, mine with gym clothes, a camera, and two busted laptops.
We were standing by the elevator when an apartment door burst open and Ava’s best friend in the world sprinted down the hall to hug her good morning. The two girls embraced until the elevator arrived.
The whole dark wet walk to school, my child hummed happily to herself.
Dog Day Morning
THE DOGS leave today.
While my ex has been away this month, I’ve watched her two small dogs. And so have my two cats—especially the black alpha. Add an active eight year old girl to that menagerie and you have 34 busy but blissful days.
That time ends now.
This morning my daughter and the dogs shuffle off to her mother’s apartment, where her grandparents will take loving care of them all.
I mark the occasion by packing my bag for Boston and clearing away a last wet wee wee pad.
Funny the things you can get sentimental over.
FOR TWO YEARS, our daughter was bullied in school. The school didn’t notice and our daughter didn’t complain so we didn’t know. Finally a mom saw and told us. After that, things happened quickly. One result is that we changed schools.
During those first two years, our daughter shut down emotionally and psychologically from the moment the bell rang in the morning until school let out at night. Maybe this shutting down was a reaction to the bullying. Maybe there were other causes. What’s certain is that she didn’t learn. She didn’t learn the kindergarten stuff. She didn’t learn the first grade stuff.
The old school noticed the learning problems and provided support programs that helped, but did not close the gap. The school warned us our daughter would probably flunk kindergarten, but in the end they passed her along to first grade. The first grade teacher worried, but in the end passed her on to second grade.
Now she is in a school where they pay attention, in second grade, lacking skills her peers learned in kindergarten.
Catching her up takes hours of extra homework a week. It takes patience and cunning as we work to cool a fear and dislike of learning that’s been baked into her soul for two years. Some days I want to cry. But for her sake I smile.
LISTENING to Coltrane. Taking a break after assembling American Girl doll bunk beds. The tuxedo cat has appropriated Ava’s American Girl doll tent as his personal summer house. Ava is making up a song about wishing on a star. End of summer. Happy.
New Sources of Social Awkwardness
MY 6-year-old connected her iPad Smurfs game to my Facebook account, and now she’s sending “I Smurf You” cards to my Facebook contacts.
Life is Beautiful
I haven’t slept. For much of last night, my daughter Ava cried out in her sleep with nightmares. Eventually her cries would wake us both. Instead of going back to sleep, Ava would chat with me about her day. I wish I could remember all the amazing things she told me at 2:00 AM.
Around 3:30 or so, we were both asleep when our little dog Emile began barking to be let down from the bed. (He’s too small to hop down himself.) I groaned, rose, and set him gently on the floor; off he trotted to relieve himself on a Wee-wee Pad™ I’d left in the front hallway for just such a contingency.
Moments later we heard an unearthly shrieking. The dog has progressive, incurable, pulmonary fibrosis. The attacks come on suddenly and unpredictably (except that they often most occur after he has relieved himself in the middle of the night). His lungs stop pumping oxygen. He falls over, typically into his own excrement, and goes into what appears to be cardiac arrest. Uncanny shrieks testify to his terror and pain.
Typically I can bring him back by throwing myself on the floor, talking to him, and patting his ribs to get the lungs working again. I did this and my five-year-old was right beside me, helping, and asking if the dog was dying.
“He’s not dying,” I said, confident that this was not the moment. (And luckily, I was right.)
We cleaned the dog and put him back in bed.
“Dad, there are poopy turds on the floor,” my daughter said.
“I know, I’ll clean them in the morning.”
“Dad, there are poopy turds on the floor.”
“I’ll go clean them,” I said.
Around 4:00 AM the three of us cuddled up and my daughter carried on a delightful conversation, mainly by herself, for at least half an hour. Then we were all asleep. And then the 6:00 AM alarm rang.
Kids can keep you up all night but it’s all worth it. Domestic animals give love freely to the least deserving, but their lives are short and their ends are often brutal. And it’s worth it. It is all worth it. Every day, even a sad day blurred by headaches and filled with business meetings, is magical and infinite. This dance, this particular proton dance, will never come again. This tune we’re too busy to hear will not be played again. Never forget to be thankful for your life.
I was in the Austin airport, looking for my gate, when a raspy voice rang out:
“If he wants more than I’m giving him, fuck him. No, seriously, fuck him.”
For a childhood fever, the doctor gave me Tetracycline. As a side effect, my adult teeth came in with almost no enamel. Enamel is the shiny, white, smooth, sexy part of the tooth. It would be nice to have some. Dentin, which I have in abundance, is yellow like old bones and permeable like shale, given to breakage and to deep grooves that attract stains. Imagine Keith Richards swilling a blend of coffee and urine and you have an idea of what my teeth came in looking like.
To the normal agonies of adolescence, add teeth that put the viewer in mind of pirates and mummies. (On top of which, I was short, very skinny, afraid of everything, and had blackheads.) As a boy I learned to smile with my lips closed, and I still do so without thinking about it. In photographs, even when I am content, I often appear to be frowning or pondering or merely pretending to smile because of this now conditioned muscular behavior.
I am a public speaker and appearance matters, but there is nothing I can do about the look of my smile. Whitening won’t work because whitening requires enamel. Crowning all my teeth would take at least $40,000, and I never seem to have $40,000 lying around.
Then in my 40s, I developed serious gum disease, complete with rapid bone loss. Left untreated, it would certainly cause me to lose my teeth. It would also, for medical reasons I’m not qualified to summarize, greatly increase the chance of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and subject me to constant infection (and thereby, as well, to diseases that take advantage of a continually overtaxed immune system). The bone loss means the teeth are not strong enough to support crowns, so even if someone handed me $40,000, I couldn’t use it to build a pretty smile.
I have other health problems but they don’t bug me like the mouth business.
The other thing that pulverizes my self esteem is these Michael Douglas jowls that have somehow attached themselves to my head. They say to me what her spreading hips say to a woman. To make these jowls disappear, I would need to lose all the other fat on my body first. Like the hips, that’s just how it works. Even Steve Jobs has some middle-aged jowl on his otherwise starved frame.
I’m sure even Brad Pitt has something he hates about his body. An elbow that sometimes chafes, for instance. But is he man enough to tell you about it?
While my great grandfather hid in a rain barrel, a Ukrainian villager raped my great grandmother. Some time later, my grandfather was born.
He looked Ukrainian—so much so that he could slip away to the village, pass as a Christian child, and overhear the neighbors scheduling their next attack on the Jews. Then he would scamper back to the shtetl and let his parents know it was time to hide in the woods again.
My father and brother inherited the Ukrainian rapist’s good looks, and I inherited his thirst.
I first learned about the Ukrainian rapist last year, in the context of one of my father’s breakfast table reminiscences. My father mentioned it as if it were one of the old family stories—like the stories about my father’s childhood, or my mother’s father’s death in an airplane crash, or my parents’ marriage. I’ve been hearing those stories since I tasted milk, but the rapist in the family tree was news.
Perhaps because the boy’s face reminded him that he had failed to protect his wife, my great grandfather made a daily exercise of beating my grandfather.
He beat him in Ukraine, he beat him in steerage on the passage to America, he beat him in the new land. He only stopped beating him when my grandfather, with my great grandfather’s written consent, enlisted in the US Army at age fifteen to go fight the Huns.
The US government arranged to have my underage grandfather’s soldier’s pay sent directly to my great grandfather in America.
My grandfather might have thought World War I would be softer than life with Poppa, but if so, he was mistaken. He emerged from trench warfare with a plate in his head, a metal disk in his knee, and certified paranoid schizophrenic as a result of exposure to mustard gas, a chemical agent the civilized nations were using on each other’s soldiers.
When he emerged from the hospitals, the US government gave my grandfather a disability pension, and this time the money went to him. Armed with those small funds, a mentally ill poor man’s talent for the grift, and his striking handsomeness, he won my grandmother and produced two children, one of whom was my father.
In deference to tradition, my grandfather beat my father every day. He extended the tradition by also beating my grandmother.
That stopped when my father, still wearing his Navy uniform, returned from World War II and threw my grandfather out.
In the decades that followed, my grandfather would sometimes appear out of nowhere, creating emotional havoc in my parents’ house until my father gently put him on a train back to New York.
My grandfather married seven women that we know about, but none of the marriages stuck.
He gravitated to the Bowery and probably died there.
We last heard of him in the 1970s when I was in high school. Late one night, the phone rang. I answered. A New York cop told me he had picked up a deranged homeless man claiming to be my father’s father. Could we come pick him up?
We didn’t live in New York; my parents were out of town; as a minor watching my younger brother in my parents’ absence, I couldn’t travel to New York to fetch my grandfather. So I told the policeman that my father’s sister—my grandfather’s daughter—lived in the New York area and gave him her telephone number. Then, very politely, I hung up.
I had a bad feeling, like I should have done more, but what?
We never heard another word about my grandfather.
Running woman and madman
Two incidents mark my morning walk to work.
On Second Avenue, a long-legged woman in a short black skirt dashes past, late to an unknown appointment, her movements fluid and beautiful.
With every step, her skirt bounces, flashing legs at the avenue. Her left hand hangs at her hip, trying to keep the skirt down. But she fails at this, and the attempt only makes the male viewer more aware of the rhythmic, teasing visual.
The whole thing is unconscious. It has the visual semantics, but not the intention, of cheesecake. She is simply late, happens to be beautiful, and isn’t dressed like an Anabaptist. Nevertheless, her passage fractures the Matrix.
Even businessmen who dress like they never so much as take a breath without running a spreadsheet first can’t help turning back to get a second look.
She runs fast and is out of sight in minutes, leaving a trail of pheromones in her wake.
I want to thank her, but I would never catch up, and running after her is probably a bad idea.
Minutes later, approaching Lexington Avenue, I see a mentally ill man hurling racial epithets at the street.
“Fuck you motherfucking niggers,” he shouts.
Did I mention this part? He is black.
In his hand is a beer that a clerk at a nearby convenience store apparently thought was an okay thing to sell him.
He screws up his face into a horror mask and screams nonsense syllables as I pass him.
On the corner with several other people, waiting for the light to change, I feel him sneak up on us, and a moment later he defeats his own sneaking by shouting again.
“Don’t GIVE a fuck!”
A large plastic milk carton sits abandoned on the sidewalk. He grabs it and flings it into the street, just missing us corner-bound pedestrians. The milk carton touches down in a busy lane of traffic. Speeding cars begin changing lanes to avoid smashing into it.
Damn it, I think.
I think this because I know I’m going to get tangentially involved, and past experiences with mentally ill street people have not gone well. There was the guy in DC harassing women on the train. I interceded and he messed with me. DC yuppies, watching the whole thing, moved away rather than help. Then there was the guy— Well, anyway, enough.
I walk into the oncoming traffic, pick up the milk crate, take it back to the sidewalk, and push it down directly in front of the raging drunken mentally ill homeless man.
I look at him, he looks at me.
I don’t know whether my eyes are communicating toughness, compassion, or a kind of inattention—as if, by not focusing on him, he might not focus on me. I have no strategy. I’m moving on instinct and my plan is to disengage.
Whatever happened between us passes. I turn back to the street, the light changes in my favor, I move quickly into the intersection.
Behind me, he throws an abandoned filthy bath rug into the street.
I let him win that one.
[tags]cities, NYC, New York City, urban, living, urban living, street, life, streetlife, myglamorouslife, glamour, zeldman[/tags]